Residents gather to recall ‘devastating’ 1998 tornado

Frank and Louise Stagliano weren’t home when a 185 mph tornado ripped through their neighborhood 10
An aerial view of the Viall Hill area highlights the damage left behind by the storm that struck the Mechanicville and Stillwater areas in 1998.
An aerial view of the Viall Hill area highlights the damage left behind by the storm that struck the Mechanicville and Stillwater areas in 1998.

Frank and Louise Stagliano weren’t home when a 185 mph tornado ripped through their neighborhood 10 years ago Saturday, but they will probably never forget what they saw and how they felt when they were able to survey the damage to their Viall Hill neighborhood.

Frank Stagliano said a neighbor’s entire roof was transplanted in the couple’s backyard, stuck 6 feet into the ground.

“I couldn’t believe it. It was like ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ ” Stagliano said. “The tornado just picked up the roof and put it in our yard.”

Besides losing 36 trees on their property the Staglianos were among the luckier residents in the neighborhood. Their home only sustained minor damage.

“We were very fortunate,” Louise Stagliano said.

Residents gathered at the Riverside Pavilion Saturday to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the tornado that caused an estimated $71 million in damage, concentrated in neighborhoods in Mechanicville and Stillwater.

Stillwater Supervisor Shawn Connelly said he was living in Clifton Park at the time, but still had family in the town.

“When we drove through the town after the tornado hit, there were no lights. It was eerie; there was no one around,” he said.

Connelly, who took office less than six months ago, said he wanted to organize an event to allow the residents to recognize the event’s impact and offer thanks that no one was killed.

“I think we should remember how lucky we really were,” he said.

Residents enjoyed hot dogs and hamburgers under a pavilion in a setting that appeared more like a family reunion than a remembrance ceremony.

A video of photographs and area news station footage of the tornado’s aftermath played in the background. Before the ceremony, residents attended the unveiling of the Mechanicville Public Library’s display about the 1998 tornado. The display includes a slide show and audio interviews of tornado victims.

Paul Lilac, who was Stillwater supervisor at the time, remembers a month-long blur of recovery activity after the tornado hit the area. He recalled that he was about to eat pizza with his family when a reporter called to tell him that half his town “had blown away.”

He said at nearly the same moment police officers came to his door to take him to the Viall Hill neighborhood, which residents call their ground zero.

“It looked like a bomb hit,” Lilac said. “It was just devastating.”

Homes had been tossed off their foundations. Roofs blown off. Trees uprooted. Debris and rubble were everywhere.

Lilac said he worked constantly for nearly a month on the relief effort. His wife, Kathy Lilac, said she didn’t see her husband for nearly three weeks.

“He left before I got up and came home after I went to bed,” she said. “I ate my meals at the firehouse [recovery command center] so I wouldn’t be alone.”

Lilac said he remembers fondly how the aftermath brought the community together. He said people helped each other whether they knew their neighbors or not.

“The storm did bring the community closer like a family,” he said. “This looks like a family reunion because it kind of is.”

Keith Collins, current chief of the Alvin Hart Fire Department, said the department was preparing for severe weather that afternoon 10 years ago. Collins said firefighters knew a tornado watch and warnings had been issued, but were unprepared for what happened.

“No one thought a tornado would hit Stillwater,” Collins said.

Ten years later, Collins said he is pleased with the way the local emergency responders reacted.

“The emergency responders were tested . . . and the good thing that came out of that is we learned a lot and made some relationships that we continue to build on,” Collins said. “The neighborhoods are built again and better than ever.”

To help affected neighborhoods recover, the Fire Department donated 200 pine tree saplings and encouraged residents to replant trees lost in the storm.

Categories: Schenectady County

Leave a Reply